In my annual lecture last year I argued that a decline in the performance and legitimacy of institutions along side a weakening of social solidarity had led to individualism being the dominant way in which we think about and pursue change. The problem is not so much individualism per se (like hierarchical authority and social solidarity, it has its weaknesses and strengths as a mode of operation) but that it is required to do too much work in terms of resolving hard problems. For example, as I have also argued, the political establishment continuously and erroneously maintains that the individualistic idea of social mobility is the most appropriate and effective way of addressing social injustice.
The dominance of individualism (which is accompanied by a muted but powerful social fatalism) influences the way we see the world. It becomes hard to know whether individualistic solutions are best or we have simply become more receptive to those solutions.
A few weeks ago David Halpern, head of the Government’s Behavioural Insights Team spoke at an RSA seminar on social networks and values. He said he had gone into his job being interested both in ‘nudge’ based interventions which target individual behaviour – things like asking people to sign a commitment to look for work when they register with a job centre – and asset-based interventions which focussed on understanding and mobilising communities. However, as went on to say, the former had both been easier to measure – using the preferred methodology of randomised control trials – and more productive in terms of generating proven interventions.
I was reminded of David’s comments when listening yesterday to Evgeny Morozov delivering an RSA lecture about his new book ‘To save everything, click here’. For Morozov the capability offered by big data, used in combination with insights drawn from behavioural economics, social psychology and neuroscience, to offer individualistic solutions to problems ranging from obesity to criminality brings with it two major dangers.
The first concerns privacy and intrusion, do we really want Google to be using our smart phones and embedded sensors in day to day objects to learn a huge amount about our behaviour, including our various cognitive and behavioural quirks. By the way, I find it odd that while we would object strongly if a stranger came up to us and told they knew more about us than we know ourselves, most people seem relaxed about a private corporation having such an advantage.
Morozov’s second objection chimes with Halpern’s experience. He argues that the ability to analyse individual behaviour in granular detail and the enthusiasm of the tech community for behaviour-changing interventions based on incentives and ‘gamification‘ leads policy makers to view all social problems as problems of individual modification not social change.
So the capacity of technology, the insights of behavioural science and the weakness of alternative world views interact to drive an ever more individualistic paradigm.
Another example is the tendency to blame the poor for being poor. The myth - peddled by politicians who should and do know better – that a high proportion of the millions who are out of work are inter-generationally long term unemployed and that by implication their problems are ones of character (maybe even genetics?) is not only objectionable but hampers sensible policy making.
On refection, we know that social problem are not all about the decisions and capabilities of individuals and we remain responsive to hierarchical and solidaristic analysis and solutions. Indeed there may be a connection here to the rise of so-called populist parties. As conventional leaders fail to reform institutions and provide new forms of authority, and as policy makers lose faith in social remedies, nationalist and extremist parties seem to offer the only route for our desire for visionary leadership and shared identity.
‘It’s not about you, it’s about us’ may sound like a terrible managerial cliche but it seem to be something we are finding it ever harder to believe about social problems. To tap the full scope for social power and to achieve progressives ends, means not only focussing on the future we might want but on the means we need to get there.
I had some stunning comments on my last post on 21st century enlightenment (thank you!). A number of people suggested I needed to set out the structure of the argument (and why I am making it) more fully. I have done this below:
1. 21CE is the new mission for the RSA. Explain what I mean by this. Show this a powerful way of understanding the progressive challenge. Define the broad terrain for our work and the challenge for the Society as an institution
2. Original enlightenment was a shift in ways of thinking about who we are and the world in which we live. Describe key elements of this with particular reference to ways of thinking
3. Why might we now need a similar shift in consciousness now? Four reasons ?: a) Climate change, finite natural resources, protecting the environment. b) Global interdependence. c) Lack of well-being, fulfilment and social inclusion in rich world esp UK. d) Pace of complexity and change
4. Another way of thinking about this is the great transition between the world human beings lived in throughout their evolution and the accelerating change that has transformed the developed world since the enlightenment.
• From small, homogeneous closed communities to mass, open diverse communities
• (In the rich world) from scarcity and subsistence to plenty
• From deferential, slowly changing, bounded-information cultures to reflexive, always changing, information-overloaded cultures
5. In each transition we can see the signs of dislocation but also imagine a new
way of thinking
• From conflict about nationalism, religion and identity to the emergence of a global civil society
• From individualism, consumerism and inequality to a focus on well-being and the good society
• From trying to make the world fit the ‘traditional’ world view relied on by most people to enabling the majority to reach what Robert Kegan calls a ‘modern’ world view.
6. Are there already concrete signs of the emergence of new ways of thinking, fragments of a 21st century enlightenment?
• Just as new technology was crucial to the first enlightenment – especially the mass production of books (ref Benedict Anderson) so the internet is vital to this. It is crucial to get behind the hype and try to understand the real and possible impact of the internet of the way we think and live (ref Morozov)
• Growing debate about redefining progress (ref Sarkozy Commission)
• Public awareness of science of brains and human behaviour leading to new models of human functioning (esp social brain)
• Focus in many countries on the importance of the early years in fostering capacity for ‘self authorship’ and empathy
• Work of inter-faith groups in acknowledging the importance of the sacred and the ‘golden rule’ at the heart of all religious belief (ref Armstrong)
• The growth of downsizing and social enterprise as people seek to bring their work and life into alignment with their values
• Growing interest in ethics as the essential core of organisational mission (why it is more effective than regulation)
• Focus on capabilities approach to education and social rights
7. Finally, crucial to the enlightenment was the emergence of new institutions (as it was to the American ‘gilded age – ref Putnam). The RSA was one of those institutions now it needs to be a 21st CE institution. Explain what this means for how we work.
Suggested hashtag for Twitter users: #21CE
The internet is neither neutral nor inherently liberating. It operates in the context of existing social conventions and power structures. Its impact is real but often subtle and unexpected.
Yesterday we had a fascinating event with Evgeny Morozov, a US based expert on how political regimes use technology. Contradicting the lazy cyber utopianism of many politicians and commentators, he showed how authoritarian regimes like China, Russia and Iran are using the internet as a tool of reaction and repression. From Russia’s experiments with e-consultation, to the Iranian and Chinese regimes using crowd sourcing to identify dissidents, to the use by various regimes (including Israel) of private companies to manipulate online polls and Google searches, bad people in high places are proving as good at using the internet as good people blogging for freedom from their basements. Indeed, these regimes have been as good at using the internet to foster nationalism and pro-regime extremism among the young as the opposition have at mobilising protest.
Morozov also questioned the idea that the internet encourages democratic engagement showing, for example, that Chinese young people are even more likely than those in the West to use the internet primarily for entertainment (adult or otherwise). It is as much a new opium for the people as a catalyst for democratic awakening.
By coincidence, just before Evgeny’s talk, I had a fascinating meeting with Matt Locke (FRSA) who makes up half the tiny but brilliant team at C4 commissioning multimedia youth content. He has some very interesting insights about how young people operate online and I am hoping we can get him to the Society soon to discuss the pros and cons of trying to encourage young people into more creative and constructive online engagement.
Then, this morning, I read a Guardian piece by Jon Henley which suggested that a large part of the explanation for the current crop of court cases and press stories involving teacher-pupil relationships is the way that remote communication (through SMS, e-mailing and social networking) had enabled much more contact (much of it unwelcome) out of school hours.
The web is changing culture, relationships and organisations. Its effects are real and important. Sometimes they are good and sometimes not. The exaggerated claims of those who say the internet is inherently a destroyer of organisations and hierarchies or that it is bound to lead to greater democracy and collaboration are an unhelpful distraction from the important study of the internet’s real impact on real lives.
What I wrote on the train …
As a child, I often set my heart on a present for my birthday or Christmas. Often the desire sprang from watching TV adverts for toys or games. I wanted Scalextric, Battling Tops, or KerPlunk.
But the combination of time passing between desire and fulfilment, and the inevitable gap between the real plastic in my hand and the TV version, which seemed to so delight its fictional family, often left me feeling cheated.
I was reminded of this feeling at the TED Global Conference I am attending in Oxford. It’s not that the speeches aren’t up to the generally high TED standards – on the first day we had Stephen Fry, Alain de Botton, an inspiring world music entrepreneur, a pioneering stunt man and a juggling aphorist, not to mention a remarkably relaxed Gordon Brown.
So why the feeling of disenchantment?
Since I first watched Sir Ken Robinson’s TED lecture a few years ago, and fell in love with the organisation, I have come to the RSA, where events have always been free and open to the public – and, several of the speakers talking here have already spoken at John Adam Street. TED delegates think of themselves as a hand-picked elite, and have paid about £3,000 for that status.
This makes me grumpy about things like TED having sold more tickets than there are seats in the theatre, while the MC never misses a chance to tell us how wonderful the simulcast rooms are!
Also, whilst almost all the speeches have been great, the experience of hearing talk after talk jades the intellectual palate. Rather than a place for reflection or challenging debate, all the whooping and cheering makes it feel like ‘Britain’s Got Talent’ for rich hippies.
So, I will pop in and out over the four days of the conference and catch up with what I missed on the net. But rather like the Buckaroo I received in December 1970, there’s a bit of me wishes I could go back to the feeling of anticipation.
But what I’m saying at the coffee break …
The last session was very good. I really hope we can get Evgeny Morozov on how social media can actually help authoritarian regimes and Stefana Broadbent on the way new media help ordinary people reconnect work and their personal lives to speak at the RSA.